Addiction can be broadly thought of as continuing to engage in some activity, despite it significantly compromising the life of the user, and those around the user. For example, the heroin addict selling family heirlooms to pawnshops, or continuing to smoke cigarettes despite having lung cancer.

Addiction is a legitimate a mental illness, the same as with drug addiction.  As stated before, it’s not the fault of the one afflicted. About 50% of addiction is due to genetic factors, the rest to environment.

Overall, one thing holds true:


Also, drug addiction is only one kind of addiction. Here are some others:

  • Obsessive sexuality
  • Unhealthy amounts of internet and TV use
  • Video game addiction
  • Pathological gambling
  • Chronic hair pulling
  • Regular shoplifting
  • Compulsive lying
  • Unhealthy frequency of pornography use

On this last one, we have a comparison, directly below, to common recreational drugs

Though the general opinion among experts isn’t that pornography is as insidious and damaging as the infographic suggests, it gives a nice comparison of the change in levels of dopamine. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter (psychoactive chemical in the brain) involved in pleasure. That said, non-drug addiction can very well be just as, or more, powerful than addiction to drugs.

As for official, United States of America definitions…

Addiction Defined

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.”

They go on to say that it’s “characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

As stated at the top, addiction involves compulsive engagement in something for an artificial award, despite significantly compromising the quality of life of the user and/or of those around the user.

And yet….

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Criteria (Guidelines) of Determining Addiction

The fifth edition of the DSM details 11 possible aspects.

  • If three or fewer symptoms are present, the disorder isn’t very horrible
  • Four or five means that the illness is of medium intensity
  • Six or higher makes the illness very serious.

Also, the diagnosing professional indicates

  • Early or sustained remission
  • That the person is in a controlled environment
  • That they are on maintenance therapy, such as a heroin addict being maintained on methadone.

Below are the 11 possible traits of addiction.

  1. When the substance is taken for longer than, or in larger amounts than, was originally planned by the user
  2. Not being able to reduce or stop use, despite trying
  3. Eating up a significant amount of time recovering from use, using, or trying to obtain, the substance
  4. Craving the substance
  5. The substance stopping them from completing what’s necessary at work, home, and/or school
  6. Taking the substance despite it causing significant social issues
  7. Continuing to use, even if one sacrifices healthy and crucial recreational, social, and/or occupational habits
  8. Continuing use, though it puts one in significant danger
  9. Continuing use, even when it’s caused or greatly worsened a physical and/or mental issue
  10. Increasing one’s dose over time in order to achieve the same desired effect
  11. Going into withdrawal when one stops using the substance

Mayo Clinic lists several possible signs of addiction:

  • Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — this can be daily or even several times a day
  • Having intense urges for the drug
  • Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
  • Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
  • Spending money on the drug, even though you can’t afford it
  • Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use
  • Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
  • Driving or doing other risky activities when you’re under the influence of the drug
  • Focusing more and more time and energy on getting and using the drug
  • Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug

Signs of Possible Addiction

  • Physical problems, such as lack of energy or insomnia
  • Issues related to employment or school, like taking too many sick days or sudden disinterest in studies
  • Money being spent, or valuable items missing, without a decent explanation
  • Sudden decline in the quality of social relationships with family members
  • Being significantly secretive about time spent with friends
  • Being way too protective of people entering their room
  • Neglecting physical hygiene (being clean)

How Addiction Functions

Addiction develops roughly equally out of genetics and habit. There are several factors…

  • Social pressure
  • A history of addiction in the family
  • How addictive the drug, and route of using the drug (such as oral), is generally considered to be
  • A weak bond with parents and/or siblings
  • Having another mental illness
  • Gender
    • Males more often become addicted to drugs
    • Females more often progress to addiction faster

The Physical Nature of Addiction

Over 60 years ago it was discovered that there was a part of the human brain that dealt with pleasure, from tasty food to sex. This area is located in the primitive part of our brain, the limbic system. More specifically, largely in the nucleus accumbens of the limbic system. It is termed the “reward pathway”, but technically, the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward pathway.

Activity of a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger that communicates between the cells of the brain) called dopamine in this region was found to induce pleasure.

Psychoactive, pleasure-inducing drugs also seem to all increase dopamine activity in this part of the brain.

When one is addicted to a drug, their body stops producing as many natural pleasure chemicals in an attempt to maintain homeostasis (balance). This process is called allostosis. Their brain has literally adapted to the chronic presence of the drug, so that if and when the addicted person stops using it, they will be in great pain.

Given that animals chronically dose themselves with addictive drugs when given the option, it’s clear that cultural and social differences are not completely behind the experience of these drugs as pleasurable.

The National Institute of Health offers most information on The Basic Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction

And a bit more elaboration on Drug Abuse and Addiction

Oftentimes, people will become addicted to drugs that they initially used to self-medicate. In this instance, it’s important to reveal the disorder at its base, and treat it with less destructive means.

Shortly after a drug addict stops using, powerful cravings will usually be experienced, which vary in strength and feeling depending on the amount and frequency of the addiction, and the particular substance one became addicted to, respectively.

Availability, contact with things that were associated with taking the drug, being in a mood that normally leads to drug use, and having a small portion of the drug, can bring on strong cravings.

Remember: each time a craving is endured, one becomes more powerful over indulging in the vice

Connected to this is the social and cultural approval of drug use. For instance, if all one’s friends are drug addicts, it will be much harder not to use than if none of their friends are. If heavy drinking is expected on cultural occasions, someone of that culture is more at risk for becoming an alcoholic.


It’s important to state that addiction and dependence are not the same thing. There are some medications, such as benzodiazepines (Klonopin, Ativan, Xanax, and others) that may cause extreme withdrawal, to the point of possibly being fatal, when patients try to get off of them too fast. However, most people find that psychiatric medications taken as directed do not create addiction, but will cause, and are meant to cause, a dependence.

The million dollar question, which each person of age has to decide for themself, is if being dependent on medication is worth the degree of improvement in quality of life.

As stated at the top, addiction doesn’t just occur with drug use. Other possible addictions include…

  • Paraphilia/hypersexual disorder
    • Abnormal, extreme sexual desires
  • Kelptomania
    • Irresistible urges to steal unneeded items
  • Pyromania
    • Compulsively setting things on, and playing with, fire
  • Gambling disorder
    • This includes playing the lottery
  • Internet addiction
    • People have died in playing internet games for outrageous periods of time

The nature and treatment of specific additions are elaborated on in other sections. But first, a few relatively recent charts and information on the Risks of Drug Abuse and Addiction

Sources: Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach, Dr. Theodore Papperman, Ben Komor, DSM-IV, The National Institute of Health, The Addicted Brain,, Uppers, Downers, All Arounders: Physical and Mental Effects of Psychoactive Drugs,, Stahl’s Essential Psychopharmacology, The Lancet, The Atlantic,,, Dr. Michael Kuhar,,,,